Wake up from Unworthiness
An Interview with Tara Brach
Illustration Credit: On the Shore by Hagar Vardimon-van Heummen
"What’s wrong with me?” So many of us regularly experience feelings—such as shame, loneliness, self-hatred, or just a general sense of deficiency—that give rise to this question. For over 35 years, clinical psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach has worked with people to relieve this kind of emotional suffering and guide them toward spiritual awakening.
Brach is the founder of the Insight Meditation Community in Washington, DC, and author of True Refuge and Radical Acceptance. She spoke with S&H about feelings of unworthiness, working with these painful feelings, and healing in relationships.
Tell me about the “trance of unworthiness.”
When people start looking more closely at the reasons that they’re having a difficult time feeling close to other people, they often realize that it’s because they are not liking themselves. Over the last few decades, I have found that the deepest expression of suffering that we have—especially in the West—is this sense that “I’m not okay. I’m deficient. I’m falling short in some way.”
A woman once told me about being with her mother while she was dying. Her mother came out of a coma and said, “All my life I thought something was wrong with me,” and then she went back in the coma and died. For this woman, it was the greatest gift to hear that. So many of us spend huge amounts of our lives feeling this way—sometimes it’s a very explicit dramatic sense of being damaged goods, and other times it’s a subtler layering of judging ourselves. We’re not good enough. We’re falling short. We should be doing something better. Whatever level this is happening on, when we are turned against ourselves, we cannot embrace our world with an open heart.
How does this feeling of falling short affect our lives?
It affects everything. It is affecting this conversation right now that you and I are having. There’s some monitoring going on: Am I doing my job? Am I likable? Am I going to make a good impression?
This background doubt in every communication makes it hard for us to do any number of things, such as take a risk at work. It can also drive addictions because we feel anxious about failing and have to soothe ourselves. Most dramatically, we can see it in our relationships. You can’t be intimate with someone else unless you have a capacity to embrace your inner life. Whenever we’re with other people, if we’re not feeling aligned with ourselves, there is some part of us that is always trying to get approval or avoid being judged.
Where do you think these feelings of unworthiness come from?
Each of us grew up with set standards—provided to us by our caregivers and the larger culture—that informed us how to act in order to be loved or respected. I should look a certain way. I should achieve certain things. At work we have these ideas of what it means to be successful, and we’re always rating ourselves and other people. We have ideas about what it means to have a good personality or what it means to look good. The larger culture has very explicit standards on what it means to “make it.”
To the degree we judge ourselves as less than, there’s this gap between the standard and our sense of self that weighs us down, and we can feel it in our body. Some people say, “Well, it’s just a belief,” but the belief we are falling short has a physical correlate—shame and depression show up in our bodies, for example.
The culture is particularly toxic for those who aren’t in the dominant culture, because they most clearly don’t meet the standards. Marginalized people—such as people of color, certain ethnicities, sexual orientations, gender orientations—often have this sense of not being good enough, which runs very, very deep.
Earlier you mentioned that these kinds of feelings manifest most dramatically in our relationships. That makes it sound like feelings of unworthiness are closely related to feelings of loneliness. What advice would you give to somebody who feels lonely?
First, I would like to say that loneliness is a more attuned way of paying attention. When we feel that we’re not measuring up, we feel estranged. Feeling lonely is a deep and painful experience. And, actually, if you can get to even being able to name it, that means you’re pretty far along, because it usually takes some digging.
If you can name it, then you can begin to bring a healing presence to it. That’s the reality. So let’s say you’re stuck with this kind of vague sense that something is wrong with you, and it’s very deep and it’s hard to begin to work with it. If you can say, “Right now I’m feeling loneliness,” then this is where we can begin to bring in really powerful, radical tools of practice. We can lean into the feeling, name it, and open up to it with a real interest. We can ask, “What does lonely feel like? Where is it in my body? Where do I feel it the most? If my face could make the expression of lonely, what would it look like?” If you make the expression with your face, that will then reconnect you even more in a somatic way to the rest of your body.
Then see if you can really go right inside the lonely feeling. If the lonely feeling could say, “Here’s what I most want in this moment,” what would it be? The core question is what does that lonely place most need from you right now?
So we don’t push the lonely feeling—or whatever feeling it is—away. It sounds like a process of accepting the feeling.
Yes. When we’re at war with ourselves—and in some way blaming ourselves for how we are—the true place of transformation is when there’s a rousing quality of self-compassion and self-forgiveness. You can say, “I forgive this loneliness.” You’re not saying this is bad, but that you forgive it. What you’re really saying is, “This is the inner weather system right now, and I forgive it or let go of any resistance to how it is. I remove any blame, or any aversive kind of quality.” It’s a very tender letting be of what is.
When we teach our workshops, the practices of self-forgiveness and self-compassion are right at the center. Because you can’t be mindful of an emotion—let’s say loneliness or fear—if there’s a part of you that is blaming it. So there needs to be a quality of softness in the heart. There needs to be a tender space that makes room for what’s there in order to have a true mindful presence with it.
That’s why I often talk of the two wings of presence: mindful attention and heartfulness. Mindful attention is clarity about what’s happening in the moment, and heartfulness makes room for it with kindness.
But let’s say you’ve done something truly awful. Then aren’t we right to beat ourselves up a little?
Well, there’s a very important difference between wise discrimination and aversive judgment. We all need wise discrimination. We need to be able to move through our lives and look at our own behaviors and others and know what is creating harm and what is moving us toward healing. We need to be able to discriminate and say, “No, when I act like that—when I speak in that tone of voice to my child, for example—that causes shame.” That’s wise discrimination.
To say, “I’m a goddamn asshole. I can’t believe I did that.” That’s aversive judgment. And it does not serve to make war on ourselves for what we feel is harmful. In other words, if I have spoken in a shaming tone of voice to my son, for me to then shame myself does not make me more likely to be respectful in the future. Punishment doesn’t work. We know that. We know it doesn’t inspire our children or show them a way to grow and learn when they’ve behaved in ways that aren’t wise. It doesn’t work with criminals either.
It’s inevitable that we’re going to be imperfect. We all cause harm. We sometimes cause harm in ways that are very, very hard to forgive ourselves for. But it’s not until we can be with ourselves in a forgiving way that we can do the healing that actually inclines us toward being more helpful and healing for others in the future.
There’s a metaphor about this that I often use when I’m teaching. Let’s say you’re going through the woods and you see a dog by a tree and you reach down to pet the little dog, but it leaps at you with its fangs bared to attack you. In that moment you go from being friendly to angry at the dog. But then you see that the dog’s paw is in a trap. Then you shift from being angry to saying, “Oh, you poor thing.”
It’s just like when we’ve caused harm, or when someone’s caused us harm. There’s a leg in a trap. People do not cause suffering unless they’re suffering in some way. Being able to see that doesn’t mean that I then stand there and let the dog attack me. We still do what we need to do to protect ourselves, but it gives us the quality of heart that lets us respond to the situation in a much more compassionate and intelligent way.
How can we begin to have self-compassion in those moments when we are feeling very down on ourselves?
I’ll give you an example. Once I was working with a mother whose daughter was getting into drugs, and her grades were plummeting, and so on. This woman came to me because she was so angry with her daughter, and the angrier she got the more defensive her daughter got. So they were in a really bad standoff. When I started working with her, I asked, “Under that anger, what’s going on?” She went right into a place of shame, saying, “I failed her. This is happening because I’m a bad mother. I’m a terrible person.” She was really down on herself.
So I asked her to tell me how long she had been feeling that sense of failing another person, and she said, “All my life. I feel like I failed my mother. I failed my partner.” Then I asked, “What does it feel like when you feel like you’re failing someone?” She described it as this deep sense of hollowness and ache. Then I asked her what it’s like to know that she has spent so much of her life feeling like a failure. Then she had what I sometimes call this, like, “ouch” moment that’s kind of like a soul sadness. She saw the shape of her incarnation, how many life moments were lost to self-hatred.
At that moment, I asked her to get in touch with that part of her that felt so low and see what that feeling needed. She said, “It needs to feel some kindness.” So I had her put her hand on her heart—and I do this often because it’s so opposite of how we usually relate to ourselves—so that she could relate to herself with tenderness. And I had her offer the words that would be most comforting to her own place of feeling shame and hate. She ended up using a phrase that she had heard from me, which is “I’m sorry, and I love you.” It’s a phrase that I actually heard from a Hawaiian healer who offers it to himself and to everybody else.
That became her practice. Whenever she’d get caught in feeling that sense of failure, she would put her hand on her heart and just say, “I’m sorry, and I love you.” Eventually she’d end up softening, and her sense of identity would shift.
She went from identifying as a bad person and a failure to having a feeling of compassion that’s just holding the pain. That freed her up in a way that allowed her to begin to imagine her daughter’s pain and sense what her daughter was going through. She was sending that message to her daughter until there was actually a visceral thaw and they began to start communicating.
It sounds like we need to work on ourselves before we begin to work on our relationships. But it’s so common to look to our friends, family, and lovers to do something to help us feel better. Is that an unwise approach?
My understanding is that we’re wounded in relationships, and we heal in relationships. The relational field can be very healing. But it can only be healing if we are simultaneously in a relational field with our inner life. So I think both are really intrinsic processes of waking up and becoming free.
So often in spiritual life you hear people saying, “You can’t look toward other people, and you have to be your own guru and healer and holder and lover.” But the truth is that other people matter. It makes a huge difference if there’s someone else in your life who is a mirror of your goodness, who can sense with compassion your vulnerability, and with whom you’ve learned to let love in and learned to express love. That’s an incredibly necessary part of the process.
But none of that is possible unless you’re simultaneously in an engaged relationship with your inner life. By that I mean that if you imagine the thing you think is the very worst about you—let’s say you feel like you’re intrinsically selfish, or you feel like you have an aggressiveness that’s just disgusting to you, or you feel that in some way you’re so insecure that nobody in the world could love you—whatever it is, it’s being able to take what seems to be the worst part of yourself and finding a tenderness and a forgiveness that can hold that. That’s the process of befriending our inner life and it’s absolutely essential.
Of course, being in a relationship with another person who can see the part of ourselves that we hate and still love us no matter what helps us in that process. So it’s very synergistic.
So does all this mean that you personally have an enlightened relationship?
I have a wonderful, rich, and juicy relationship that is in process. One where I am regularly exposed to my neurosis and also regularly reminded of the oneness, the awareness, and love that are our shared belonging.
Do the two of you talk about the nature of your relationship frequently, or does it just sort of unfold without intervention?
Twice a week, we have a check-in where we will sit and meditate for 20 minutes. Then we continue the meditation as a kind of interpersonal sharing where we will look at what’s going on for each of us as individuals. And there’s an inquiry that we phrase like this: “Is there anything between us feeling loving and open and at home with each other right now?" And then we look to see, and we’re really honest with each other. At some points, if there’s something going on and we’re less than honest, then there’s suffering. So we are training ourselves to speak the deepest truths that we can, because the more we name what’s real, the more intimacy there is.
That kind of conversation sounds like it takes a lot of self-awareness and courage.
It takes a lot of courage. What gives that courage, however, is practicing and creating a safe space and having some guidelines. We didn’t just stumble into it. We both have been meditating, offering counseling, and guiding couples and groups in conscious communications for years. But there are some basic intuitive guidelines about creating safe spaces. For instance, when one person speaks, the other person will mirror back what was said to make sure it’s understood before going into their response or reactions.
In that process of mirroring back, there’s space for the person who spoke to be understood in the deepest way. So you get to understand where that person’s leg is in a trap and touch into compassion.
You know, self-awareness is something that seems key to having healthy relationships. And yet, some of my favorite moments in relationships are when other people seem to know me better than I know myself.
Our self-awareness grows in the relational field when there’s mutual attentiveness. If you say something, and I really am listening, then I can have an understanding that I can mirror back that can actually enhance your own experience of who you are. That kind of relational feedback process is so juicy! I mean, that’s what we’re in it for: to become more of who we can be. And people can help us unfold when they both see our goodness and create a safe space that lets us express it.
With all your years’ experience working with couples, what do you think are the most important qualities of a good relationship?
The essential ingredient in a good couple’s relationship is that it provides a fertile field for awakening our hearts. This means there is a mutual willingness and dedication to speaking truth and opening to compassion. There are many qualities to creating that fertile field—respect, self-awareness, love, generosity, humor, and more—but the bottom line is, are we committed to being fully who we are? Are we committed to living from the fullness of our hearts and awareness? Are we committed to bringing out that fullness in each other?
When we come to see our relationships—all of them—as an intrinsic part of our spiritual path, then each day becomes alive with moments of learning, opening, serving, and savoring.
Looking through the Eyes of a Wise and Caring Friend
Bring to mind a relationship where you’ve treated another person in a way that is difficult to accept or forgive. You might start with something that doesn’t trigger full-blown self-hatred, so that you can gradually build your skill in this process.
Now, invoke the presence of a good friend, healer, or teacher—someone who understands and cares about you. Imagine looking through this person’s eyes at yourself: What was the vulnerability—the hurt, fear, or confusion—that might have driven you to the hurtful or unwise behavior? Can you see the life circumstances that contributed to the behavior? While witnessing with this person’s eyes and heart, sense the natural compassion that arises. Now, fully inhabiting your own body and heart, imagine hearing the witnessing person saying with kindness, “It’s not your fault.” Let those words sink in and trust that if you let go of self-hatred and self-blame, you will have more capacity in the future to live true to your heart.
Each time you find yourself trapped in self-recrimination, explore looking through the eyes of a wise and caring friend. By learning to let go of self-blame, you actually will become more able to respond to others in a wise and loving way.
For more guided meditations and talks from Tara, please visit tarabrach.com.
Sam Mowe is the Communications Manager at the Garrison Institute in New York, a nonprofit dedicated to exploring the intersection of contemplation and social action. Tara Brach will be coleading a retreat at the Garrison Institute on December 4–6.